It was another very early wake-up call on very little sleep. And while we knew we had an extremely long day ahead of us, at the time, we had no idea it could have been our last. Our group, including the film crew and Peruvian porters, numbered around 28 people -- so when we moved, we moved slowly but steadily. At 5:45 a.m., we found ourselves aboard a bus, yet again, on the way to the train station. And once we boarded the train, our trek to Machu Picchu would be officially underway.
After living in New York and Chicago for almost 10 years combined, I have been on countless trains. Between the subway in New York and the "L" in Chicago, both cities have large commuter transit systems. That being said, I had never in my life experienced a train ride like this.
The seats were wide and plush. Each set of seats faced another set, with a beautiful water table in between. It felt more like a banquet at a steakhouse than a form of transportation. Because our group was so large in size, we wound up having an entire train car to ourselves. The windows were magnificent and the ceiling of this beautiful train was made entirely of glass, allowing every twist and turn through the Andes to be seen from every angle possible.
In America, with the exception of First Class, the food provided by the major airlines is pretty pathetic -- and the service behind it is generally even worse. Having had my fair share of "snack packs" aboard previous travel excursions, I was absolutely blown away by the fact that not only were we served a wonderful meal, but a centerpiece was placed on the table to commemorate the occasion. Talk about knowing how to create a unique travel experience!
Unfortunately, our train ride only lasted an hour-and-a-half. After being given a few minutes notice to prepare ourselves for our stop and gather our belongings, we realized exactly what our "stop" was -- and things got real in a hurry! At kilometer 104, there is no station and no platform -- and we found ourselves with nothing but a raging river to the left of us and train tracks to our right.
Team Gleason had all-terrain wheelchairs built for Steve and I for the hike. Our guide told the group to expect a five-hour trek up the mountain. On the side of the tracks, I decided to get into the chair for the first time. I should have probably thought about the logistics of this ahead of time, but it was now or never. Though the terrain would be difficult to traverse, our team already knew that going into this adventure. Luckily, the wheelchairs were custom-designed for this specific trek, making them easy to pick up. Picture a combination of one of those fancy jogging strollers and an ancient Chinese emperor's chair, and you've got a good idea of what our means were for making it to the top of this massive mountain.
Right before we started moving, we made a modification to my chair. While there was already a headrest, unfortunately, there was no place to attach it. Thank God for zip ties. The headrest is an essential part of my chair, as my neck is fairly weak and would definitely need to be supported while on a five-hour hike. So once we got the zip ties in place, we were off!
Most of the paths we were on were never more than four feet wide, nor could they have been described as flat or smooth. Even so, our team was so full of energy and determination, we just kept going. I was being pushed by two people in the back, one of whom was former NFL All-Pro linebacker Scott Fujioka, and we also had two porters in the front. To save a few steps or avoid a rough spot, the men found themselves periodically lifting up the entire chair with me in it like it was nothing. Imagine doing this every four or five feet while trying to simultaneously support yourself throughout the hike. Not easy.
We were told the day of the hike would probably be cool and rainy, so we had dressed accordingly. Apparently, the weatherman was misinformed on that one. The sun was beaming and seemed to get brighter and hotter around every turn. It seemed like every time we went down a flight of steps for ten yards, we quickly found ourselves going right back up another flight for twenty. Because of the narrow terrain and constant twists and turns, there was never a moment of rest. And as a result, I was completely helpless, my life literally in the hands of strangers.
When we went downhill, my quadriceps flexed tightly, bracing myself in the chair. When we went uphill, my neck was pressed tightly into the headrest. After only a couple hours into the trek, my chair broke again. Amazingly, no one seemed to stress out about this, or even bat an eyelash. After we added some pieces of a backpack, a large branch, and more zip ties to the equation, we were on our way again.
On the most difficult stretches, I could feel the breath from every one of the men carrying me. Which made me wonder: if my body was tired, what did their bodies feel like? How did they have the capacity, the energy, the drive to continue to lift my chair over and over again? And why, for the love of God, did our guide keep telling us we still had three hours ago after being almost five hours into our hike? And were we really running low on water?
To be continued...